Today was a real trek, from the village down and along the Third River to the SW corner of Lake Pikul’ney and then North along the moraine hills on its Eastern shore towards an area known as the Cross, then into the moraine hills about a kilometre and back to the Third River and home! Around 20km, give or take a kilometre or two.
The environment here is rapidly changing every day (as the snow and ice quickly starts to melt) and so is the wildlife, as many of the species we are seeing now head north to their respective breeding grounds. The large numbers of wigeon, teal and pintail have largely left this particular area of the Third River, although I could still see good numbers flying over, heading west. The sea ducks however, were now moving inland and I saw a small group of long-tailed ducks and a pair of harlequin ducks on a small pool in the moraine hills. The cranes were now appearing in greater numbers and some had formed pairs and were becoming very vocal, especially when small groups of cranes passed overhead. Lots of displaying ringed plovers now, likewise there were a couple of Pacific golden plovers displaying on an almost constant basis and, in the bright sunlight, these looked really stunning. More signs of smaller waders now, with Temminck’s stints and dunlins all heading north to breed. I could also now hear a number of red-throated divers calling in flight, a sound very similar to a mallard and quite unlike the other members of their family. On my way back from what had been quite a tiring trek, made longer by having to walk around the numerous snow banks and snow filled gullies, I stopped for a break at the monument and was amazed by the numbers of singing Lapland buntings. I counted over 20 singing males in an area of around half a square kilometre and way out on the ice I could see a large male bear. When I watched him through the scope I could see he was very fixated on one small area. I later spoke with Pavel and Egor about this, as they had also observed this bear in the same place for a number of days now and we wondered if there was something particularly tasty there, as in total he had spent four days sniffing around and trying to break through this particular area of the ice.
Today was the day that Nikolai and I were finally able to get into the container storing the outdoor rearing equipment. We spent a good portion of the morning looking through everything and were both relieved that everything was still in good condition. There were now quite a few house martins flying around the village, so a good sign that, fingers crossed, spring is here to stay (in one form or another at least!).
With one of the quad bikes being repaired by Roman and the other waiting for its 10,000 km service, Pavel and Egor had been using the other one to carry out their work with the breeding population of red knot – these arrive earlier than the spoonies and in an area that is the first to become accessible by quad bike. Yesterday, however, they had managed to make it down to an area 10km or so to the west, known as “Pants” (it gets this name because it is a peninsular shaped like a pair of trousers). They had seen a good number of different waders, including red-necked phalarope, greenshank and spotted redshank on the marshes that were now free of snow and ice. It was lunch time by the time I got there and the large numbers of dabbling ducks that had been earlier seen further East along the Third River had now moved west and were exploiting the newly available food as the ice melted. There were also quite a few scaup, which had moved inland from the sea. There were a couple of male dunlin displaying in the marsh and I could hear Temminck’s stints making flight calls as they passed over head along with a rough-legged buzzard looking very handsome as it circled above me in the bright sunlight. The one thing however, that really impressed me about this area, was the view! Once I had passed the western edge of the moraine hills, I was greeted by one of the most amazing panoramas I have ever seen in my life and at this exact moment, the camera battery became flat, leaving me with just my memories of an amazing frozen landscape.
The previous day had not exactly been a great day for me – I had been nursing a cold since not long after my arrival in Meino and had probably given myself a chill coming back across the tundra from the western marshes. I knew things were not quite right given that I could not get myself warm even in an unbelievably warm insulated Russian house!
Today, however, was another day – my day in the warmth had worked wonders and I felt ready to go out and survey again. Again I was searching the Third River, along the moraine hills to Lake Pikul’ney and the monument and then back further into the moraine hills to see what was there. Things were getting more exciting as from today the first spoon-billed sandpipers start to appear. A lot can change in the space of a day on the tundra and a lot had changed. With the warm weather, a lot of snow and ice had melted from the Third River although it was still blocked in some areas, meaning there was a fair bit of flooding now. However, as the First River entrance to the sea had not been blocked by winter storms this year, the flooding was nothing like as bad as in 2011. It took a fair bit of searching to find suitable crossing points, but once to the edge of the moraine hills I saw my first greenshanks of the year feeding along the edge of the snow banks in the pools that were now being created. On the drier areas of the plain, ringed and Mongolian plovers were now pairing and I saw a few leg-flagged individuals known to Pavel. The air was full of the sound of lesser sandhill cranes and calling red-throated divers, whilst on one pool there was also a pair of black-throated divers. On my return from the monument through the moraine hills, I had some lovely close views of a white gyrfalcon – something I will never get tired of seeing. However, I wasn’t there to watch gyrfalcons, I was there to look for spoon-billed sandpipers and they were most noticeable by their absence. Although my day had been less productive, Pavel and Egor had informed me that whilst surveying the marshes along the Pants peninsular, Egor had flush a small stint sized wader, it had flown up into the air and gave out that magical call. Happy days, they’re back!
Today I was heading west to an area known as the corral, this is named after the remains of the corals standing there that were used up until the early 1990s to hold reindeer once herded by the local Chukchi people. Sadly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chukotka suffered terribly and the local inhabitants, with no other available food, were forced to eat them. Although attempts are being made to reinvigorate the reindeer industry, most of the skills and knowledge have now been lost.
Apart from its history, this area is also known to hold breeding spoon-billed sandpipers and as a bird was sighted the day before, 8km to the west, this was definitely the place to check. The weather was again warm and sunny and after eventually negotiating the Third River and the swollen stream that flows into it from the corral (much easier said than done given that the stream had cut channels under the ice banks and the only areas where I could cross involved walking out onto these and hopping over the narrow gap) I headed up into the moraine hills to a small, still frozen, lake with an adjoining marsh, well known as an early stop off point for returning spoonies. With the ongoing good weather, good numbers of sky larks, red-throated and buff-bellied pipits were busily singing away. It was interesting to listen to both of the pipits singing, as their calls were very similar, but with the buff-bellied pipits being softer in tone and after hearing a few individuals singing, it became easy to tell them apart. Suddenly, alarm calls from these little birds rang out and a female merlin shot past me, at a distance of only ten metres, and continued along the edge of one of the hills and out of sight, intent on finding a meal. This was my only excitement for quite a while, as although there is a great diversity of birds here, the densities are very low and you can walk for long distances without seeing anything except for the occasional vega gull and the ever present sousliks. Waders were very few and far between on this particular day, even in some of the marshy areas where I thought there would at least be some snipe, even if not the elusive spoonies. I did, however, see another two gyrfalcons, one new youngster from last year and the same white male from previous days. Whilst making my way back, I met up with Pavel and Egor, who informed me they had seen a couple of displaying male spoon-billed sandpipers and had heard on the radio from Nikolai and Nastia that they had also found a pair in the west at sledge lake, as well as seeing a wolverine! Clearly I was not doing very well on the spoon-billed sandpiper front and would have to pull out the stops tomorrow to find one.
A new day and a new month, so fingers crossed I would have some luck today. In the morning I discussed with Pavel suitable areas to search, now that more and more places were becoming accessible. He suggested that after Egor dropped him off in the red knot breeding area to start his work there, he could come back and drop me off at the Overwash Spit, around 12km from Meino. I could survey there and then make my way back to the village. This sounded like a good plan and after dropping Pavel off, Egor was taking me across the tundra. Half way there we spotted a pair of red knot and stopped to see if they were carrying any rings or leg flags. Being used to seeing these only in the winter in the UK, I have been really impressed with how handsome they are in their summer plumage. Nearby were a pair of pacific golden plovers, an equally handsome bird. Once on the spit, I had not headed far when a group of 3 geese standing on a far away section of the spit caught my attention. In the distance there were 2 grey geese, either pacific white fronts or bean geese. Next to them was a greater Canada goose, a rarity for the area and a proper wild one, not like the feral ones in the UK. Pleased with this spot, I headed across one of the first areas of marsh and up popped a red fox – their numbers are very high this year and we are going to have to take a lot of extra precautions this year to make sure they don’t enter the release pen or make short work of the young and naïve young spoonies post release. The fox made a sharp exit across the marsh and as I carried along the edge of the marsh and lake, a small wader flew up about 30m or so into the air and gave that call I’d been waiting to hear since I’d arrived. The sun, for once, was shining from the right direction and not dazzling me, so I could briefly but clearly make out its distinctive orange head and bib. Bingo! My first spoonie of the year. The rest of the day was pretty good too! Unlike many areas which could be best described as bird deficient, Overwash Spit was alive with ducks, geese and, most of all, waders – lots of Temminck’s stints displaying along with dunlin, greenshank, wood sandpipers and the now ever-present ringed and Mongolian plover pairs on the walk home across the tundra. I was really tired when I returned home in the evening, but elated after a real red letter day.
Today was a Sunday and given that I had not had a shower since leaving England on the 13th May and coupled with a shot on Egor’s computer and functioning internet, this seemed like a productive and necessary use of a morning. By late morning however, I was out and about again, checking the Third River, moraine hills and the monument again. After yesterday’s epic, I set out on a leisurely afternoon stroll and saw pretty much the same species with the addition of long-tailed ducks in the small pools in the moraine hills, with the added bonus that some of the flood water seemed to have receded a little. Once at the monument, I could see Pavel and Egor out on the Tundra slowly coming in my direction. I sat down to wait for them near where the stream enters the still frozen Lake Pikul’ney. By now there was a small patch of unfrozen water on which there were some ringed plovers (no surprises there) and three red-necked phalarope (my first of the year). Once Pavel and Egor had arrived I went over to speak with them and they informed me that Nikolai had radioed earlier in the day to say that he had seen the pair of spoonies from the monument and they asked if I had seen them. I replied no, but at almost the same moment, from twenty metres away we heard the male calling. We looked over a small hump and there he was sitting with his female, a different younger bird than last year. Whilst Pavel and Egor checked a ringed plover’s nest 300m to the north, I stayed and watched the pair feeding at the edge of a pool on insects that had been blown onto the snow and ice and become immobile. This little male is a very special bird – he is very tame and has featured in most of the films made about spoon-billed sand pipers and the project. He was also the first spoon-billed sandpiper that I saw in the wild and the twenty minutes I spent watching him with his new female was like twenty minutes spent with an old friend.